ORLANDO, Fla. (PAI)—If you want yet another reason the nation needs immigration reform, walk into your child’s elementary school classroom.
Chances are, says American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, that your boy or girl will have a lot of classmates with Hispanic names. Some one-quarter of the nation’s elementary school students are Hispanic-Americans.
Yet millions of those kids live in fear, Weingarten adds – fear that their families will be suddenly and arbitrarily broken up. Statistics show 6 million students come from “blended” families, where one parent is a citizen or permanent resident and the other is an undocumented worker.
And the undocumented worker parents are liable to be picked up, detained and deported at any minute. Think how that makes kids feel, Weingarten says.
“We have seen firsthand what happens to our kids when their parents are fearful, when they’ve done nothing wrong, and yet there is denial of their right” to live and work in the U.S., Weingarten, a New York City schoolteacher, told a Feb. 27 press conference during the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Orlando, Fla.
“We have seen what happens when teachers are brought in” from overseas to solve shortages, especially in math, “and their visas are denied.” The teachers, often after paying thousands of dollars to “unscrupulous recruitment agencies” in countries like the Philippines, are left high and dry – and subject to immediate deportation.
“And the worst we have seen is in Alabama and Arizona, where politicians thought bigotry would carry the day. They frightened parents to death, kids didn’t go to school and teachers were put in the position of being snitches. Many refused” to tell law enforcement officials if their students, or the students’ parents, were undocumented.
All those humanitarian reasons, and more, demand the nation fix its broken immigration system, and the AFL-CIO is launching a massive presidential-style grass-roots campaign to force lawmakers to do so.
Its object is approval of a comprehensive immigration reform law to create a path to eventual citizenship for the estimated 10 million-11 million undocumented workers in the U.S. It would come after they pay fines, learn English, have clean criminal records and seek legal status behind legal immigrants. It also would erect new border safeguards and create a trustworthy electronic employment verification system.
But the federation’s drive faces resistance, and not just on Capitol Hill.
Though many congressional Republicans now realize their party must appeal to the nation’s largest, and fastest-growing, minority group if it wants to remain politically competitive, others do not. And congressional GOPers, who are more than 85% white Anglo men, face nativist blowback from constituents if they back immigration reform.
So immigration reform backers are creating and mobilizing a national mass movement. It urges comprehensive reform, including citizenship. It also warns pols that opposing reform is perilous at the ballot box, says Maria Elena Durazo, the top union leader in Los Angeles County and chair of the AFL-CIO Immigration Committee.
It’ll be a movement outside D.C., adds D. Taylor, new president of Unite Here. His union includes many Hispanic-named workers. “The Freedom Riders” of the civil rights era “didn’t go to Washington, D.C. They went to Mississippi and Alabama. If we left this to Washington politicians, reform would be impossible,” he told the press.
The GOP in particular must remember who voted in 2012, and why, Durazo said. Latinos turned out in record numbers and backed Democratic incumbent President Barack Obama over GOP challenger Mitt Romney, 71%-27%. Obama promised to work for comprehensive immigration reform; Romney promised deportation.
There are other reasons for labor’s big push. One is workers’ rights. “Economic exploitation” of the undocumented “is a detriment to them, to other workers and to responsible employers. When you have legal status and a pathway to citizenship, you have a voice – and it has an effect on all workers,” said Taylor.
That’s because legalizing the undocumented workers “undercuts” venal and vicious employers who underpay – or don’t pay – the undocumented, he added. It also gives the workers labor law protection. And employers cannot use the threat of hiring undocumented workers to force down living standards for everyone else.
The other is an economic boost. Studies show the nation’s three biggest cities — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — alone lose $56 million yearly in uncollected taxes because undocumented workers are paid “under the table,” or far less than they deserve or both. Make workers and wages legal, and tax collections rise.
The biggest hurdle, Durazo admits, will be gaining citizenship for the undocumented. Proposals floating around Congress – including an outline Obama offered – make the road years long, and hard. That’s unacceptable, the unionists said.
“Something will get done this year that shows this is still the land of opportunity, not the land of exclusion,” Weingarten says.
- Mark Gruenberg (PAI)